Skip to main content

He should be dead right now. He’s got more urine than blood!


The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
(2013)

The key to a scene-stealing supporting turn is often precisely that the movie isn’t all about that character. You’re left wanting more, but if you were to get it you’d likely find the character watered down to fit the mold of a traditional protagonist. It’s why Hannibal Lector is so effective in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, but much less so in Hannibal. I doubt that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone would have worked if it had revolved around Jim Carrey’s David Blane-esque shock magician, but it would surely have been more inspired than what we get. The big problem with the film is that Steve Carrell’s Burt is both dislikeable and not even vaguely interesting.


Perhaps part of the problem is that Burt doesn’t give Carrell much comic mileage. He rarely has the chance to act-out and he’s unable to make Burt a prick to root for. The opening sequence, during which awful generic rock music adorns his and Anton Marvelton’s (Steve Buscemi) stage show, is impressively cheesy. But then quartet of writers choose to plough a furrow that seems tiresomely obvious. Childhood friends Burt and Anton now hate each other. Burt is predatory pig for and of course he has lost touch with made him want to perform in the first place; all magic has gone from his act. You can see Burt is set to plot a standard path to redemption, but it’s one he never earns.


It’s all very well to show him up as a complete tit when he attempts to perform his and Anton’s act solo, but the big finale in which he must impress us with his true craft proves unpersuasive. Likewise, we can’t get behind his coupling with browbeaten assistant Olivia Wilde because he’s such a jerk, and because there’s a complete absence of chemistry between the actors. There are occasional glimpses of a more energised, manic Carrell, and on these occasions the movie picks up; A case in point is when he and Anton are suspended above the ground in a plastic cage, an attempt to out derring-do rival act Steve Gray. Perhaps it’s just Carrell’s weak spot; he can play stupid, or naïve or benevolent, but when it comes to self-centredness he’s a bit lost. There needed to be more of his desperation (“He put a dog in my pants, Jane. He put a live dog in my pants. No one’s ever done that to me before”). His misanthropy fails to amuse and his sleaziness is plain tiresome.


Burt and Anton’s act is Siegfried and Roy by way of David Copperfield, who makes a cameo to show what a good sport he is.  Steve Buscemi fares much better than Carrell amid this Vegas campery, As an Adam Sandler regular, he knows what it is to slum it in feeble comedies, and he brings guilelessness to Anton that probably wasn’t there in the script. You can certainly see where feeble ideas like his Operation Presto are heading a mile off (“I bring magic, not food and water”).


If Burt never engages, the opposite is true of Gray. No matter how much we are told that he is a “terrible human being and a really bad magician” or “I know he sucks”, everything about Carrey’s performance says otherwise. He may be 10 years older than Carrell, but he’s still got it. Carrey is firing on all cylinders and this is his best comic character in years, a reminder of why he made it so big in the first place He’s a master of antic posturing and, unlike Carrell’s Burt, his arrogance is so zesty and gleeful that we can’t help but be pulled along for the ride with him.


Steve Gray, “Brain Rapist”, is the sort who will tear a card from his cheek and then stitches the flesh back together; he’s not so much a magician as a Jackass. He challenges himself to hold his urine for 12 days, sleeps on red-hot coals, burns “Happy Birthday” into his arm and trepans himself. Oh, and does unspeakable things to a puppy. Whenever he absents the screen it’s for too long. I can’t see that director Don Scardino intended for Carrey to steal the show so completely, but that’s what he does.


Alan Arkin has fun as the inspiration for Burt (looking remarkably like Harvey Keitel when he is “youthed-up”, although James Gandolfini’s billionaire hotel owner is underwritten (it’s amusing to hear that he suggested his son have Miley Cyrus, Justin Beiber or Mandy Patinkin perform at his birthday; they missed out not getting Patinkin to cameo).


Whenever Carrey’s onscreen the movie bursts with anarchic brio, making the Carrell sequences even more turgid in comparison. Carrey’s never really gone away, but his lust for mega-hits seems to have dampened of late. It’s just as well since both this and Kick-Ass 2 have been misfires. As the guest star he’s the winner in both cases, though; he can’t get the blame for them bombing and the praise for him as been almost universal. Carrell meanwhile has always mixed studio and indie fare, and since he’s never been a sure thing at the box office he may not be too concerned at Burt’s fizzle.  And there’s always Despicable Me 3 to look forward to.

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

This popularity of yours. Is there a trick to it?

The Two Popes (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes joke, in which he dropped The Two Popes onto a list of the year’s films about paedophiles, rather preceded the picture’s Oscar prospects (three nominations), but also rather encapsulated the conversation currently synonymous with the forever tainted Roman Catholic church; it’s the first thing anyone thinks of. And let’s face it, Jonathan Pryce’s unamused response to the gag could have been similarly reserved for the fate of his respected but neglected film. More people will have heard Ricky’s joke than will surely ever see the movie. Which, aside from a couple of solid lead performances, probably isn’t such an omission.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.